Portugal Part 2: Sintra + Algarve Coast

Day 89: Sintra, Portugal

After a wild weekend in Porto, we landed back in Lisbon to rest up for the night before stepping back in time to a magical land…

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Whether you like pretending you are a princess or a knight, castles bring out the child in all of us. Europe is known for having some spectacular castles, and Sintra Portugal is home to a few exceptional ones. 

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Our day of castle exploring began by taking the commuter train from Lisbon to Sintra. It’s an easy 40 minute ride that takes you towards the west coast of Portugal. 

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Upon arriving, we immediately dropped our bags off at our hostel and began our walk to the first stop: Quinta da Regaleira.

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We spent two hours wandering around the park and its various paths, caves, wells, and palaces. 

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Apart from the stunning architecture and gardens, most fascinating part of the property was the wells, which were more like inverted towers. Walking down the spiral staircases felt like we were part of a movie set. 

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After leaving Quinta da Regaleira we hired a tuk tuk to take us on the 10 minute ride to our next destination—the castle that was said to have inspired Walt Disney:

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Pena Palace sits on top of a small mountain that overlooks the beautiful countryside and town of Sintra. It is safe to say this palace took our breath away. 

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The palace consists of two colors which represent the portion built to be a monastery and the additions to be a royal residence. The monastery was originally constructed in 16th century, with the palace addition being completed in the 19th century.

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Every turn while exploring the courtyards and palace grounds brought amazing new views.

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After reluctantly leaving the Pena Palace which was easily our favorite place in Sintra, our last stop of the day took us to The Castle of the Moors. 
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Situated on a close by neighboring hilltop to Pena Palace, this castle had a classic medieval feel. 

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Built in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was a critical location to protect the central Iberian peninsula. It changed hands several times over the centuries, and was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1755. The parts still standing allow you to walk along the top of the wall and experience the breathtaking views. 

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It was a whirlwind of a day trying to squeeze all three places in before sunset, but Sintra is one of our favorite places with its beauty, landscape, and castles. If anyone is visiting Portugal, visiting Sintra is a must. 

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Day 91-92: Portimão, Portugal

The day after Sintra we were back in Lisbon to catch another bus down to Portugal’s famed Algarve coast.

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Located along the southern tip of Portugal where the Atlantic waters mix with the Mediterranean, the Algarve coast is a region comprised of clifftop cities and villages atop stunning rocky beaches.

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With only a few days before we had to head to Spain, we identified our top beaches and made a plan to hit as many as possible along the way.

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On our first day we walked down to Portimão’s main beach—Praia da Rocha. There were plenty of touristy areas, but if you walked far enough in any direction you could easily find caves and grottoes like this:

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Feeling a bit adventurous, we decided to rent a moped the second day to visit some of the farther beaches.

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On this day we stopped in Praia da Marinha, Praia de Benagil and Praia do Carvoeiro. Cruising through the countryside, hiking for hours along the beach, stopping by fruit stands and sangria cafes—it was possibly our top day in Portugal.

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Day 93: Lagos, Portugal

On Friday we caught another bus to Lagos for a quick stop at just a few more beaches. We found trails along the cliffs with views that left us speechless, and hiked for hours to the southern peninsula to watch the sunset.

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And took advantage of the scenery for impromptu photoshoots, of course.

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Photo of the day:

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It was our last sunset in Portugal—a country that exceeded our expectations and blew us away at every turn. We will miss you dearly and hold onto your memories forever.

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Stay tuned for the video 🙂

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Northern Portugal: Lisbon & Porto

Day 82-84: Lisbon, Portugal

After a short but sweet ten days back home to celebrate an engagement, birthday and wedding, we were on a plane once again—bound for Portugal.

Our first stop to begin five months of backpacking across Europe, Lisbon is Portugal’s capital city and we had high expectations after hearing countless raving reviews.

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Jet lagged from a full day of travel and an eight hour time difference, we crawled out of bed in the late afternoon on Day 1, determined to see some of the city and taste the local food before the sun set.

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Upon stepping outside, it felt like we’d never left San Francisco. From a distance the similar appearance is uncanny—they even have their own Golden Gate Bridge (though theirs was built first).

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That bridge is named “25 de Abril”, which happens to be the day I was born… in a hospital room in San Francisco that overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. Proof that Lisbon and I are soul mates.

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After admiring our new home away from home, it was time to eat!

Sardines are somewhat of an obsession here—you’ll find them on every menu, served every way from out of the can to on  top of grilled toast. They line the streets in souvenir shops—printed on clothing and coffee cups, molded into ceramics and made into stuffed animals. There’s even a palace filled with cans to the ceiling.

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These distinct tasting little fish aren’t our first choice back home, but when in Rome Lisbon…

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The verdict? Not too bad. We had them on toast so that helped, and they probably won’t become a staple in our diet.

Sangria and gelato, however… all day every day. At least there’s plenty of vegetables here to balance those out (South America, take notes).

The first two days in Lisbon were pretty much a useless blur thanks to jet lag. We managed to find a great rooftop bar to watch the sunset, and it was the perfect opportunity to launch our new drone for the first time while traveling.

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…Until it got 20 feet into the air and a gang of seagulls began to dive bomb it, swarming around the unwelcome intruder. Caught by surprise, we immediately lowered the drone, confused about the birds’ violent reaction and bummed to miss out on our planned epic video aerial footage of the city.

The next evening we visited the São Jorge castle to try our luck again, and the white winged devils barely let us launch it off the ground before rounding up the troops to attack. Who knew seagulls were so territorial?

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We did manage to get one quick video under the shelter of trees, and can’t wait to share our first new and improved travel video soon!

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Even though we couldn’t get all the shots we wanted, the view over the city from the castle provided an amazing backdrop for photos and taking in Lisbon’s beauty.

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I wish I could say we did more in our few days here, but we’d heard rumors of a cant-miss celebration up north, so on Friday morning we caught a bus to our next destination.

Day 85-88: Porto, Portugal 

A few hours drive from Lisbon up the coast, Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and one of Europe’s oldest.

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Having not extensively researched the area (as we like to do while traveling), we had no idea what to expect—which made it that much more amazing when we crossed the bridge into the city.

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A jaw dropping landscape of medieval towers, churches and colorful stone homes stacked on top of hills with sidewalk cafes along every corner. Now this feels like Europe.

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As we walked through the streets to our hostel, trying to comprehend the incredible architecture and details on every corner, the city was beginning to come alive in preparation for the night’s festivities. String lights and colorful garlands were hung across every narrow alleyway, and you could feel the energy in the air—something big was about to happen.

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The Festa de São João is an annual celebration that is one of Europe’s liveliest street parties, yet unknown to most outside of Portugal.

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We had no idea about it until a reader from Porto had messaged me on instagram, encouraging us to come join her at the festival. With nothing booked in advance, we said “why not?” and arrived hours later.

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The most notable tradition of the festival is to hit random strangers on the head with plastic hammers, which emit a squeak when they make contact. It was amusing to witness at first, but within minutes we were right in the middle of it—pushing our way through the swarm of hammer-wielding partygoers, whacking every passerby within arms reach.

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After nightfall we met up with our new friend from Instagram, Ella, and followed her through the back streets, away from the main crowds until we arrived at a dimly lit alleyway. It was her childhood home, and her relatives had gathered around a large table to feast and celebrate.

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They welcomed us in, handing us plates of Portuguese barbecue, cake and bottles of port wine (which originates here in Porto) and we danced in the streets, whacking local kids with our hammers as they passed by.

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Just before midnight, we rushed back down to the city center to catch the festival’s main attraction—the fireworks show along the river. Thousands of bodies lined the streets, packed so tightly that we couldn’t get through to watch. Fortunately, we had a local by our side, and we snuck through a back entrance into a guarded waterfront restaurant after Ella mentioned the owners name. Score.

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There along the water, we had a perfect unobstructed view of the spectacular fireworks display. The owner found Ella and handed us a bottle of port, which we sipped on as we continued to walk through the lively streets, stopping at dance parties along the way. We met up with a few British girls and stumbled upon a carnival, where we ate ice cream and caught a ride on a merry go round.

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Before we knew it, the sky began to turn a lighter blue and we realized it was approaching dawn. There were still hundreds of people wandering and dancing in the streets, and we decided to head back to the river to catch the sunrise.

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With a soundtrack of seagulls and distant hammer squeaks, the warm glow of the city lights faded into the pink and purple sky, and we all stood for a moment to take in the whirlwind we’d just experienced. It was perhaps the most memorable night of our travels this year. Thank you Ella, for being such a gracious and fun host. These stories and experiences are what we travel and live for!

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During this past week in Portugal (which has already felt like a month) an unexplainable feeling has set in—it’s a natural high… a buzz that hasn’t gone away. More than just the normal shift that happens while traveling. Something I didn’t have in South America, and a different feeling than while in Southeast Asia.

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There’s just something about Portugal—and the rest of Europe, I suspect, that resonates with me. It feels like home. Portugal is already my favorite place on Earth (…but ask me again in a few weeks).

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As I type this, we’ve just woken up on the south coast of Portugal, ready to explore the countries famous Algarve coast before heading to Spain on July 4th. Next week I’ll be sharing all about that plus our magical day exploring castles, and as always, you can watch our adventures in real time on my instagram stories. See you soon!

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How to pack for a long backpacking trip

Hello from Portugal! We arrived last week and have already fallen in love with this country. I’ve been sharing parts of our experience on my Instagram stories, and I’ll be back soon with a more in depth blog post.

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But first: I’ve had a ton of requests asking how I pack for these extended trips, what items/bags I use, how I decide what to bring, etc. Last week I shared a live demonstration on my packing process on my instagram stories, and today I’m here with a full detailed recap!

My first backpacking trip was to Southeast Asia for 3.5 months, and after some research, I decided to purchase an Osprey 46L backpack because 1) it’s small enough to use as a carry-on (for some flights) and 2) it’s a manageable size for my 5’2” frame.

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Of course, a small size comes with sacrifices—I can’t pack a full wardrobe or several pairs of shoes or a hairdryer. But you learn quickly that stuff doesn’t matter so much when traveling, it really just weighs you down. I tend to have the same minimalistic approach with my home and the rest of my belongings, so it was an easy transition.

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I considered getting a larger backpack for this current trip as it would be several months longer, but couldn’t find any that fit comfortably and decided it wasn’t worth the cost in the end. I’m really glad I stuck with my Osprey.

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Now for the fun part—wardrobe selection!

Here’s a little secret: the main reason I’m able to pack so much is because I travel to warm locations. There’s no way I’d be able to fit boots and winter jackets in this backpack, but I can squeeze in plenty of shorts and tanktops.

There are some fundamental guidelines to adhere to when choosing what to bring, and you have to be selective. Here are my requirements:

Lightweight clothing only. Each item must take up very little space when rolled. Jeans are off limits!

Color/pattern coordination. Lay out all of your clothing and see what works together. Tops and bottoms should be versatile enough to be worn with multiple pieces, not just one. You can’t go wrong with neutral colors, and I always throw in a few patterned items to mix it up.

Comfort. This is a must. You want to be able to be fully present and enjoy your experiences, and you can’t do that if your dress is itchy or your pants are cutting off your circulation. All of my clothes were comfy enough to sleep in (no room for pajamas!) and there are plenty of long travel days where comfort is essential.

Versatility. While traveling you’ll find yourself in every situation—from trekking through the jungle to lounging on an island to dressing up for a fancy night out. Make sure you’re prepared by choosing pieces that can adapt to multiple scenarios. A little black lightweight dress is one of my essentials, along with lightweight, breathable tops and bottoms.

Affordability. This is a personal choice and I’ve never been one to splurge on clothing, but you can’t have any attachment to what you bring while backpacking. Things happen, clothing gets ripped or stained or lost, and you have to be okay with sacrificing them. I also love buying new clothes along the way, so if my bag is too full I’ll end up ditching something I brought from home to make room.

Here was my wardrobe for 9 weeks in South America:

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After taking this photo I actually ended up removing a pair of pants, shorts and a light jacket since my bag was completely stuffed and I wanted at least some room for souvenirs. With those gone, I ended up with 3 pairs of pants, 3 dresses, 6 shorts, 6 tanktops, 6 t-shirts, 2 long sleeve shirts, a swim coverup and a poofy vest. Not pictured is the bag of undergarments/socks/swimsuits, and shoes (a pair of tennis shoes, walking shoes and two sandals).

There’s one standout item that has been the single best investment of this trip and one that many of you have asked about… these sandals:

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Forget the trip, these are the best shoes I’ve ever purchased, period. I’ve always struggled with finding shoes/sandals that were not only super comfortable to walk in, but gave me some height, were acceptably cute, and could be worn with everything all while being affordable. These are it.

And believe it or not… they are crocs! I found them on Amazon and after reading countless reviews claiming them to be the most comfortable shoes ever, I spent the best $40 of my life (no joke)—the price has now gone up, apparently Croc has realized how amazing they are. Still worth every penny, I’m buying another pair as soon as I return home.

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These things have been everywhere from sandy beaches to muddy hiking trails and it feels like I’m floating on a cloud with each step. I walk several miles per day in these and could have hiked Machu Picchu with them.

Anyway, enough gushing (seriously, get these shoes).

Here’s my wardrobe for 5 months in Europe:

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I’m actually bringing less than what I brought to South America: 2 longsleeve tops, 4 t-shirts, 5 tanktops, a poofy vest, a swim coverup, 3 pants, 2 shorts, a skirt, 3 dresses and a romper (not shown are the dark green pants and black tshirt I’m wearing when I took this pic, but they’re included in the total).

Most of the shorts in South America had either shrunk, gotten lost or stained and I prefer to wear dresses/skirts anyway, especially in Europe. Other than that, the lineup is pretty similar. I was also able to ditch the bulky tennis shoes—I only wore them a handful of times and my walking shoes should be plenty sufficient for any trails/hiking we do here.

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Now my bag has plenty of room left to pack with goodies from Europe—and that’s the way it should be!

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When researching the most efficient way to pack years ago, I came across something called packing cubes. Best discovery ever.

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They are these thin, zippered and somewhat flexible compartments to store and organize your belongings. There must be magic involved because this is what happens to that bed full of clothes:

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That was my cube for South America which was stuffed, but for Europe I actually have room to spare:

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Look—my undergarments take up almost as much space as my entire wardrobe. Mind blowing.

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There is a method to this though—you have to roll your clothes for maximum efficiency. And yes, wrinkles are unavoidable. Over time you become better at identifying materials that wrinkle less than others, but it’s just one of those sacrifices you learn to live with (but wrinkles happen even with folded clothes).

For toiletries, I only bring travel sizes in case I need to carry my bag on a plane, and I find that I rarely need to refill most of them. I made it through nearly 2 months with 3oz of shampoo, conditioner, facewash, body wash and lotion. Between the lack of hot water, remote locations and long travel days, showers are not a daily occurrence and hair washing is something that happens twice a week at the most. Welcome to the realities of backpacking.

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I did bring a curling iron to South America and used it once before stepping outside into the humidity and realizing what a mistake that was. It will definitely prove useful in Europe though with a dryer climate.

All of my toiletry essentials fit into a bag about the size of my packing cube, and my makeup is in a separate smaller bag.

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Once you get your packing configuration down, it takes no time at all to put everything back in a hurry.

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One thing I didn’t have with me in Asia was a special backpack for my camera gear (I carried my SLR in whatever spare bag/purse I had). For South America, we brought a steadicam and Gorilla Pod, plus an accessory bag, so I needed a larger protective pack to fit everything.

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I found this Koolertron bag on Amazon, which has a separate padded compartment at the bottom for your camera/lenses, plus a drawstring portion at the top. During travel days I was able to fit my 15” laptop in the back as well. It’s the perfect day bag and we bring it out with us everywhere we plan to shoot (which is more often than not).

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With most of our valuables inside, this bag never leaves my sight and stays with me on every plane/bus/taxi/boat ride (it comes with a waterproof cover which is nice).

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The built in camera compartment feature is what sold me (that and the fact that it’s only $40 shipped). It all fits safely and snugly at the bottom—my DSLR, two lenses, Gopro, multiple chargers and extra batteries with room for my gorilla pod and accessory bag—all just in the lower portion.

Once that is zipped up, I slide my laptop behind everything in the back.

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In the drawstring section, there’s room for the drone and my Turkish towel/blanket which has proven invaluable.

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This turkish towel is ideal for travel days as an extra layer of warmth, a pillow or sun blocker. It’s also used as a beach towel, sarong, or for drying off after a shower when there are no towels provided (this happens pretty regularly at hostels). Definitely the most multifunctional and useful item to have on any trip, backpacking or not!

Oh, and it’s only $13 on Ebay and comes in several colors/patterns. I originally bought two and used them in the cottage flip:

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After my sandals, this towel is the second best trip purchase I’ve made.

And that covers everything on my end!

Lucas has a 50L Kelty Redwing backpack, and his has even more room (maybe because he knows he’ll end up carrying all my souvenirs?)…

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He also has a smaller day bag that can be folded up and fit into his main bag if needed.

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It’s theft proof, slash proof and has a lock to secure it somewhere if we decide to walk away. It’s nice to have when we don’t want to haul the camera backpack around with us.

Here’s the entire lineup for both of us:

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After many months of traveling over the years and making adjustments along the way, we’ve got a pretty solid setup for our needs and I can’t think of anything I would change. Hopefully this is helpful for any of you who plan to take an extended trip, are trying to pack with less or are just curious about how we pull it off 🙂

On another note, last week I published a very special video that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s a wedding gift I made for my sister and her husband who got married while we were in California recently, and has become my favorite video to date. I can’t help but tear up each time I watch it… I hope you enjoy their beautiful love story, click below to watch:

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Now we’re focusing on capturing our travels through Portugal, and looking forward to sharing our first video from Europe. But first, there are photos and stories to tell… coming up next! You can find me on Instagram (Lucas too) for daily updates in the meantime. Ciao!

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3 Weeks in Colombia: The Video

In my last two posts, I shared many stories and photos from our three weeks in Colombia—from the mountains of Medellin, to volcanic baths and unspoiled islands, to coffee plantations, national parks and bustling cities on the Caribbean. It’s one of our favorite countries for so many reasons, and now it’s captured forever in a 3 minute video.

Click below to watch our final video from South America…

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We’ve been back home in California now for a few days, celebrating my sisters wedding and regrouping before we set off for Portugal June 19th. If anyone has any Europe recommendations (around the Mediterranean) we’re all ears! Our itinerary is open and we can’t wait to explore, capture and document our experience—and of course, share it with you all!

So much more to come…

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Northern Colombia: The final days in South America

Day 58-60: Rincon Del Mar

On Sunday morning we bid our friends farewell and caught a cab to the local Montería bus station. Chelsie and Kon had taken the bus to Rincon Del Mar the weekend before and raved about it as one of Colombias best kept local secrets.

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We’d been long overdue for a beach fix, so we booked a couple nights there on our way to Cartagena.

After a successful negotiation with the bus company who tried to rip us off, we were placed in an old van in a parking lot. In front of the vans was a window that appeared to be an alcohol testing station for the drivers. Not sure how I’m supposed to feel about that.

As anticipated, the van had a broken AC and made multiple stops, with the driver running personal errands on the way. Eventually we were dropped off on the side of the road, bombarded by men yelling “Mototaxi! Mototaxi!”

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There’s only one way into Rincon Del Mar from the bus stop, and it’s via a 30 minute ride down a dirt road, typically by motorcycle. With heavy bags and a bruised tailbone eliminating mototaxis as an option, we managed to track down a car to take us there for $25k pesos (around $8).

Rincon Del Mar is a local fishing village—though village may even be too generous a word as it consists of a single dirt road lined with a handful of houses, two hostels, a few restaurants and two tiendas (aka windows selling some fruit, liquor and junk food).

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Like Montería, it’s off the beaten path, but there are a few people who visit after recommendations from other travelers. Many of them end up staying for weeks.

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Apart from the handful of travelers, the village is full of friendly locals who work as fishermen, run their tiendas, sell fruit and give rides into town. The children play futbol on the beach all day every day and hang out with travelers in the hostel, captivated by our smart phones and fancy devices. There is no crime, no one trying to sell you anything or rip anyone off—it’s perhaps the most simple and peaceful coexistence we’ve ever witnessed.

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At sunset on our first evening, we joined a few others aboard a small fishing boat headed toward an island off the coast. A storm was beginning to form in the east, and ten minutes into our voyage it turned a dark gray and took over half the sky, creeping towards us. The driver seemed a bit concerned, constantly looking back as lightning became more frequent. Lucas and I were getting soaked by the waves and I immediately regretted my decision to bring my camera, wrapping it in every dry thing we owned to protect it.

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The nervousness subsided for a moment when we approached an island with thousands of birds swarming overhead. They call it Bird Island, and it’s a sanctuary in the middle of the sea where they go to roost. The sight was even more dramatic with the ominous storm on the right, and fading pink sun on the left.

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At this point the eye of the storm seemed to be moving parallel to us, so we continued to our next destination as night fell. As it was too dark to take photos or video, you’ll have to use your imagination here with me on this part.

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The boat continued for another thirty minutes or so, until we pulled up to an empty shore lined by thick trees. We were instructed to hop off, not knowing what the plan was, until the driver shined a flashlight to a pathway with shallow water, just big enough for his boat to squeeze through. Ducking under the trees, we dragged the boat through the sand until the water deepened, and suddenly we were in the mouth of a lagoon.

After floating to the center of the still waters, our driver jumped in, inviting us to follow suit. We grabbed our masks and as we hit the water, dozens of tiny specks illuminated around us—it was bioluminescent plankton. A phenomena found in certain parts of the world. Lucas had experienced it in Vietnam and I also encountered it in Cambodia, but nowhere near this extent.

We floated in the lagoon for almost an hour, splashing in the water as glowing orbs covered our skin like a scene from Avatar. Bolts of lightning lit up the sky around us, providing a spectacular show as they formed spiderwebs across the clouds every few seconds. It was the most unforgettable, magical night of this trip.

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The following day we took another boat out to a group of islands 15 miles off the coast. The tour included a snorkeling stop in the middle of the shallow ocean, a glimpse at the worlds most densely populated island (1247 inhabitants on 3 acres), and a few hours on a beach sipping drinks out of a coconut.

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Even with sunscreen on a cloudy day, our faces were lobsters by the time we returned—have I mentioned how intense the sun is here?

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While the quiet days at Rincon Del Mar were a nice break, we were anxious to see more of Colombia before our time ran out. Sandy and sunburned, we went straight into town to catch the next bus to Cartagena after returning from the islands.

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Hoping for a legitimate bus this time, our bubble was burst when we found out it wouldn’t leave for another two hours and we were left with one option—the same sketchy van we took to get here.

Already mostly full with locals, we squeezed in to wherever we could find a spot, and another unfortunate traveler was given a plastic crate with a tarp to sit on next to me for the two hour journey.

Each bus driver here seems to be crazier than the next, and this one must have topped them all. Driving in the oncoming lane while honking his horn half the way there and easily going triple the speed limit, it was a white knuckle ride from start to finish. I felt worried for the mother in front of me with an infant on her lap, though I didn’t sense any concern on her end—I guess she’s used to it.

Unlike Brazil and parts of Peru, we feel as safe here as anywhere in the US—except when it comes to transportation.

Taxis and buses drive like they’re playing Gran Turismo, honking at pedestrians to get out of their way and swerving around cars into oncoming traffic. Families with infants squeeze onto motorbikes (helmetless, of course) and young children wander around the highways alone—a stark contrast to the highly regulated US standards. Seatbelts are rare and traffic signs and signals are merely a suggestion, not a rule. There have certainly been a few adrenaline packed rides on this trip (bruises included) but it’s all part of the adventure.

The upside of having a driver with a death wish is that we arrived 30 minutes early, even with his stops to refuel and buy mangoes off the street. He made us get out on the side of the freeway nowhere near the bus terminal and pay for a cab into town, but we were just grateful to be on solid ground alive.

Day 61-62: Cartagena, Colombia

The first thing we noticed about Cartagena was the epic pink sunset on the way in. The second was the suppressive heat. When people tell you about Cartagena, they speak of the vibrant colors, culture, people and food… and it always includes a “but it is so hot!” disclaimer.

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During our first full day in Cartagena, we wandered the streets of the old town in the afternoon, making sure to walk only in the shade and frequently ducking into banks and shops to avoid seeing spots from heat exhaustion. There weren’t many people outside, understandably—this may be the hottest place we’ve been.

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But man, is it a beautiful city.

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After drying the sweat off our clothes back at the hostel, we returned before sunset when it was cool enough for more people to come out of hiding. The old town is separated from the rest of the city by a 17th century wall built by the Spanish for protection.

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The buildings are loaded with charm, painted in pastels and saturated hues with massive wood and iron doors I wanted to steal for all of my future houses.

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Locals and tourists congregate along the wall to watch the sunset over the ocean, with a view of the skyline often accompanied by an afternoon thunderstorm. There’s a unique energy at this hour that seems to capture the spirit of Cartagena here—a city that’s warm and vibrant in every sense.

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Our flight back to the states was departing from here in eight days, so after just two nights in the city we made plans to visit a couple more places in Colombia during our final week.

Day 63-65: Minca, Colombia

A sweaty four hour bus ride north from Cartagena, Minca is a small town known for its coffee plantations.

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Nestled high in the mountains with limited paved roads, the only way up to our lodging was by mule or motorbike (or an hour uphill climb—not an option with our luggage in 100° humid heat).

We chose the motorbikes, and immediately began to question our decision when the path turned into vertical rocks, Lucas almost fell off the back and we nearly collided with a large snake.

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Drivers in South America are crazy but they’ve got some serious skills, and we were thankful for ours for keeping us injury-free before we crossed the river and hiked the rest of the way up to our hotel.

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Exhausted from the hike, we finally reached our destination and slid the bags off our sweaty backs. From here you could see the ocean behind the Santa Marta skyline, and we admired the view while wondering where everyone else was.

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Minutes later, a lady came out and served us fresh watermelon juice, smiling and welcoming us in Spanish with no further information. We sipped on our juice and wandered around the small building for a while, confused about the apparent lack of an owners presence.

The juice lady eventually came out again to bring us to a room, without asking our names or if we had a reservation. At one point we thought we may have been at the wrong place, since there were multiple names and locations on the map, and this B&B seemed to be out of business.

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Turns out, the owners went out of town for a couple days and the juice lady was a sister that lived there and helped run the farm. It’s all a very casual operation with no formal system, as typical with a family run business. What began as confusion turned into the awesome realization that we had this entire place to ourselves—an organic coffee and cocoa farm and undiscovered paradise for $40/night.

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Oh, and hands down the most amazing food we’ve had in months. Better than most restaurants back home, even. All organic homemade fish, quinoa stuffed peppers, avocado salad, chocolate cake from their cocoa beans, fresh fruit and juice and of course, delicious coffee on tap 24/7.

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Pure heaven, I tell you.

Even the outdoor bathrooms were special. How often can you reach out and pick a lime while on the toilet?

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The view was worth having centipedes, lizards and spiders the size of your hand stare at you while you pee.

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With only two days to enjoy this getaway, we decided to walk down to Pozo Azul—one of the local waterfalls. Since we were quite a trek from town, our hostess explained there was an alternate trail from the back of the hotel to the falls which should take 45-60 minutes. I made sure that there would be signs to lead the way, and felt about 75% confident that we understood enough of what she was saying to figure it out.

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At first it seemed easy enough, then the path began to split a few different directions and we found ourselves in someone’s yard with a machete wielding child. He ran up to us, waving his weapon yelling something we couldn’t understand. “Pozo Azul? Cascada?” we asked, noticing the machete was just a saw. He pointed to a direction and we continued that way for a while, until running into two more children with saws who told us we were going the wrong way.

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Their directions didn’t seem right, but they probably knew better than us, so we took their advice and turned around.

Some time later we came across another building with a local woman who told us we were also going the wrong way, and turned us around onto a different path into the the jungle.

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Moments later, I heard the bark of an angry dog growing closer and my heart dropped. We turned around to see a dog running straight at us, and suddenly a second one came behind it at full speed with its fangs out, ready to attack. Lucas told me to run and lunged at them with his fist before they could bite as I ran for my life. Fortunately, they were startled and backed down, and I could hear Lucas behind me yelling that we were safe. But I continued to run like Forrest Gump through that jungle until my flight mode calmed down, then picked up a big branch and kept it with me for protection the rest of the way.

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After our scare, we took a couple more wrong turns until finally coming across a makeshift bamboo bridge with a path that lead to the main road.

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Two hours after setting off, we stepped into the cold waters of Pozo Azul, relieved to have made it.

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But the journey was not over yet—we still had to get back.

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Clearly we weren’t going the way we came, so we began walking to Minca.

Once in town, men yelling “Moto! Moto!” approached us, but we decided we’d had enough danger for one day and would rather not relive our motorbike experience. So, we hiked for over an hour up the mountain back towards our hotel. Did I mention how hot is here?

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That day was the most physically exhausting we’ve had during this trip. But the more challenging the journey, the more rewarding the payoff…

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Day 66-67: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

With just a few days left in Colombia, we caught the early morning bus to Tayrona National Nature Park.

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As the main attraction in this part of Colombia, the park is 150 square miles of jungle that hugs a stunning rocky Caribbean coastline.

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It’s just as hot here, and our campsite is a 2 hour hike through the jungle and beaches. But we’re used to this by now.

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After stopping to hang out with a family of monkeys, admire fluorescent lizards and take photos of a stunning coastline, we made it to our beach by lunchtime.

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The day goes by way too fast here… with no electricity, wifi or entertainment of any kind, you’re forced to spend your time swimming or sleeping. It was the perfect way to end our South American adventure.

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There are a million reasons to love Colombia—the beautiful landscape, weather, friendly people, cost of living—but more than that, there’s just feeling you get that can’t be explained. Something in the warm air that welcomes you and feels like home. It’s a place we could see ourselves buying property in one day and staying for extended periods of time.

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Much like Southeast Asia, life here is much more laid back, less structured, often disorganized and illogical. It’s a different mindset and way of living that while at times may be frustrating, it instills patience, understanding and gratitude long after you’ve left. I was given a huge dose of this new perspective in Asia, and after going back to my normal routine at home, the unmatched feeling of freedom and peace has returned. It’s not something you experience after a week—it takes time to really settle in and change something in you.

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Today we fly back home for my sisters wedding, to briefly reconnect with the life we left, before landing in Portugal in ten days. These nine weeks have felt like their own lifetime, and I can’t believe it’s already over.

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What I realized some time ago holds true now more than ever—the only way I’ve found to add life to your years is to travel.

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There’s a whole world out there, and seeing it from another’s perspective will change you. We are so fortunate (yes, including you) to have the freedom to go to these places and have these experiences. There are plenty of sacrifices along the way, but you can choose it—and I highly implore you to do so.

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Our Colombia video is coming next, and I’m really looking forward to sharing this one! You can get caught up on our previous videos on my channel.

Thank you if you’ve read this far—it was a long one, but I don’t want to forget these details so we can tell our future grandchildren and relive all of these moments when we’re 80 😉

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Stay tuned for the video to go along with the stories…

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Medellín to Montería, Colombia

Day 49-52: Medellín, Colombia

Our day started early in the morning in Quito as we had to leave the hostel at 6am to take the hour long ride to the airport (having airports an hour plus ride away from the city center seems to be a recurring theme in South America). Today was a travel day to begin our adventure in Colombia, the final leg of South America. 

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It was a relatively uneventful trip that included the typical two hour airport delay and lots of people watching. That is until we were boarding our plane after our layover in Bogota and saw crowds of people taking photos with guys in green. It was our first celebrity spotting on the trip—Alexis Henríquez and Reinaldo Rueda, who are apparently the center back and coach for the Atlético Nacional futbol club. Most of the team was on our flight to play a game that Sunday. 

Upon departing the plane in Medellin, we were greeted by a throng of reporters, including ESPN, interviewing Rueda. It was quite the scene. 

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Medellín is an amazing city tucked into the Aburrá Valley in central Colombia. Most notoriously known internationally for Pablo Escobar and his drug cartel, the city has transformed over the past couple decades to be a culturally diverse, technologically advanced, and extremely friendly city. Once considered to be the most dangerous city in the world, that reputation is certainly something of the past. 

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We stayed in the Poblado neighborhood, which is an upper-middle class area known to be the center of Medellín nightlife. We were greeted at our hostel by a bubbly person named Lady, who might be our favorite hostel employee yet. She promptly led us to the roof that overlooked most of the city to join the hostel for an amazing group dinner. Not a bad way to start our first night. 

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After making new friends over dinner, we all headed out to see what the Medellín nightlife was all about. While most of Poblado is residential, there is a concentration of about 30 bars/restaurants around Parque Lleras. The area was crowded with tourists and locals, and provided us the means to show off our gringo dance moves to a mixture of Latin songs we didn’t understand. 

The following day we took the metro to a downtown stop in search of an artesenal market we had been told about. The city seemed alive upon arriving in the main square as groups of locals sat drinking coffee, men pushed carts full of fruit through the street, and people rushed by on their way through town. This scene brought us back to the hustle and bustle that accompanied many major cities in Vietnam and Thailand. 

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One of the highlights of our time in Medellín was going to the futbol game between Atletico Nacional and Cali. It is unlike any sporting event we have been to in the US. Half of the stadium is filled with flag waving fans that jump and sing the entire game. While the game itself ended in a 0-0 tie, the atmosphere is something that we will never forget. 

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One great thing about traveling is the people you meet, and where you run into them. While waiting in line to get into the stadium, we ran into a guy that was on our Peru Hop bus. Random encounters like this make traveling that much more fun. 

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Day 53: Guatapé, Colombia

After a bustling weekend in Medellín, we took a local bus a few hours east to the vacation destination of Guatapé. The area is extremely beautiful as lagoons and waterways surround the colorful, sleepy town. The area is most famous for the Peñol de Guatapé, a giant rock sticking out of the ground dating back 70 million years. 

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Our hostel here turned out to be one of the best of our trip. The owner, an energetic man named Willy, did everything he could to make everyone have the time of their lives. From sponsoring two travelers to cook a dinner for everyone, to being the DJ with music videos, to having free beer all night, it was a special experience. Plus there were two tiny kittens that we couldn’t get enough of. 

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The next day was our only full day before going back to Medellín, and we certainly made the most of it. After breakfast we climbed the 750 stairs to the top of Peñol de Guatapé. The 360 degree views from the top are absolutely stunning. 

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After taking in the views for about an hour, we joined two new Canadian friends and headed towards a water park that we hoped would provide a bit of adventure. 

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While the water park was a bit of a disappointment (it was generally geared towards younger kids) the highlight of our time in the water was jumping off the bridge on the way there. 

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The town of Guatapé itself is a vacation destination for Colombians. The buildings are an array of colors, each one with a painted mural or picture along the side. 

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We spent a few hours walking around, stopping at a local cafe to enjoy some fresh fruit juice. The scene was fun to witness as decorated tuk tuks wound around the streets and locals hung out drinking beer and playing games. 

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Day 54: Medellín (again)

We could have easily spent more time in Guatapé, but more adventures in Medellín were calling our names. We took the local bus back to the city that evening with anticipation building of one last attraction: the metro cable. 

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The metro cable was built as part of the public transportation system to help locals get to the town center and facilitate growth. Our purpose was a bit different—take in the best aerial view of the city. 

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The ride takes about 10 minutes, and glides over some of the roughest neighborhoods of Medellín.

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At the top, we took a few minutes to walk the neighborhood of Santo Domingo, which truly felt like a local experience. We stopped in a restaurant by the station to enjoy some food and the view. Here we made our biggest mistake of the day: ordering ceviche in a land locked city in a valley. The ceviche turned out to just be shrimp cocktail, but the view was still worth it. 

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Despite the ceviche experience, the food in Medellín was actually very good. The Menu Del Día (very inexpensive traditional lunch) consisted of the traditional Paisa food of a meat, soup, rice, “salad” and plantains. It usually costs between $2-3 and was the best traditional food we’ve had so far. 

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But still, like the rest of South America, 90% of meals are some form of starch and carbs, with limited or no vegetables. Like our super healthy breakfast…

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At least reading the menu is always entertaining. Gotta love their translations… 

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Overall we loved Medellín. It is a city that we barely scratched the surface of and definitely plan to return to in the future.

Day 55-57: Montería, Colombia

We found a $75/person flight to Montería and quickly determined it was worth paying an extra $40/person to avoid the 8.5 hour bumpy bus ride from Medellín.

After a short 30 minutes in the air, we stepped out onto the tarmac into a steamy field with a heat index of 110°.

Montería is a nondescript town surrounded by flat cow pastures, completely off the tourist circuit. Many Colombians have never even heard of it, and the ones that have were confused by the fact that we were choosing to go there.

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Back in Vietnam I had met Chelsie, a midwestern girl who was also traveling solo. We ended up sticking together for over a month, sharing some amazing and unforgettable adventures. She was also by my side when I met Lucas, and witnessed the beginning of our relationship.

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We’ve kept in touch and when I found out she had moved to Colombia with her boyfriend to teach English, Lucas and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit. Friendships and stories like this are why we travel.

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Because Montería is not on any tourists radar, many locals have never seen a gringo in person. Chelsie’s boyfriend, Kon, is originally from Zambia which makes it even more interesting.

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The stares, whistles and honks as we walked around town were entertaining to say the least. Waiters would run to the back, point us out to his friends and they’d all look at us and giggle. Very few people speak any English, and their Spanish is so fast and heavily accented that we could barely understand a word—thankfully we had our local friends.

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On our first day we took a stroll around the park, made friends with a giant iguana and hopped on a floating barge across the river. We grabbed a beer from a sidewalk shack and wandered around a sleepy neighborhood, passing stray animals and an endless parade of stares and yells from passing motorbikes.

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A group of neighborhood kids were playing futbol in the street, and we challenged them to a friendly game—USA vs Colombia.

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Colombia won.

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Like most of Colombia, Montería feels quite safe—this is even moreso the case in local areas that have no tourists to take advantage of. No one tries to pickpocket or rip you off. It was so nice to bring our camera and phones everywhere without thinking twice, and to be able to walk around empty streets at night simply enjoying the weather.

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Our favorite experience during our stay here was visiting a volcanic mud bath an hour outside of the city. A local had told us about this location which is even more off the beaten path than Montería.

The four of us squeezed into a cab as our driver swerved around fruit stands, kids on donkeys and herds of cows crossing the street, we caught a glimpse of the Caribbean before being dropped off in an empty dirt lot with signs pointing to the volcano.

With just a few locals hanging around, we nearly had the place to ourselves and slowly entered the foreign substance, not knowing what to expect.

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The mud is extremely buoyant and moving around is the oddest and most interesting feeling—it’s as if gravity is gone and you’re suspended in space. For under $2 each we were able to enjoy a unique experience with almost no one else there.

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After scrubbing the mud off our bodies, we followed a trail along the coast to the nearest town. There were abandoned resorts, boats, horses and stray animals to greet us.

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We grabbed a fish menú del dia lunch before heading back to Montería. It was the type of day we couldn’t have experienced without knowing someone local, and I’m so grateful for the friendships and connections that you gain through traveling.

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Chelsie and Kon recently started their own travel blog at tatteredpassports.com, where they share about their experience teaching English and living abroad—definitely worth reading to learn more about this country and gain an interesting perspective.

From their recommendation, we left Montería on Sunday and headed to a tiny local fishing village on the Caribbean coast. As of now, we’re swinging in hammocks with our feet in the sand, planning out the remaining ten days of our travels in Colombia. Stay tuned for Part 2 of Colombia, catch up on our travel videos or find me on instagram/facebook/snapchat for our daily life in between. More stories to come!

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Eight days in Ecuador: The Video

Another country down means another video! We had fun with this one—it’s a bit of a different vibe than Brazil and Peru. Click below to watch:

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Eight days was nowhere near long enough to visit this amazing country. Our Amazon adventure was my favorite experience of this entire trip, and we can’t wait to return someday.

We’re currently working our way north through Colombia, posting daily updates on instagram and facebook. Come along for the ride and let us know if you have any recommendations! Back soon with more…

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Eight days in Ecuador

Day 41: Quito, Ecuador

Our plane touched down in Quito in the afternoon, with still plenty of daylight to watch the scenery during the hour long taxi to our hostel.

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Without knowing much about Ecuadors capital city other than it being on the equator, we were a bit surprised by the cold and rainy weather.

The climate here is dictated mostly by altitude rather than season, which is currently spring in the north and fall in the south. Quito, like Cusco, is high in the mountains and shares some of the same characteristics—like frequent rain and potential altitude sickness.

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Fortunately we’ve become used to making the transition, and spent the evening enjoying the view of the city from our hostels rooftop.

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Like every new country, there were no plans or activities booked in advance, though we knew (by word of mouth) we wanted to visit a town called Baños as well as a trip into the Amazon jungle.

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Day 42-44: Baños, Ecuador

The next morning we found ourselves at a bus station waiting for a ride to Baños, where we decided to spend the weekend before a four day jungle trek we booked the night before.

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The only safety precautions we’d heard of in Ecuador were on the public buses. They’re notorious for robberies, and even the driver warned me to guard my bag.

For the next three hours we clutched our belongings as a rotation of locals hopped on at each stop, selling local toffee and breaded, fried sugary foods. We had front row seats to an excessively loud Spanish movie without subtitles, and I passed the time watching the landscape shift from children selling toilet paper between highway lanes, to pastures of cows and small mountain villages.

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Finally, we ended up at the Baños bus station and walked through the streets with our belongings until we found our home for the next two nights.

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Baños is a small town located in a canyon at the base of an active volcano. Home to countless waterfalls, hikes and hot springs, it’s a popular local vacation spot and destination for adventure enthusiasts.

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With limited time, we rented a buggy and spent a day cruising the wet and windy main road through tunnels and bridges along the gorge, stopping at waterfalls and roadside attractions along the way.

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We took a cable car at the first stop, paying $2 to be suspended above two large waterfalls which converged into the river below.

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Other waterfalls had hiking trails, so we made our way through the canyon, listening to the powerful roar of the falling water and enjoying the perfect weather. With May being off-season there was hardly anyone in sight, so we practically had these amazing waterfalls to ourselves. It was one of the most memorable days of our entire trip.

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After a day of chasing waterfalls, we stopped into one of Baños’ many local restaurants for our first taste of real Ecuadorian food. It was packed with families all eating the same dish, so we asked for the same thing. For $2.75, we were served a huge bowl of broth soup, rotisserie chicken, rice, beans, cabbage, fries and fresh squeezed juice. After Brazil and Peru, we were thrilled to be in a country with cheap food. It was quite delicious, too.

My only complaint, as with the rest of South American cuisine, is lack of vegetables. I’m not sure how the locals survive on carbs and sugar, but they do and they consume it like water. Their “salad” is a couple spoonfuls of purple cabbage and one slice of tomato—it’s the same dish everywhere and there are no alternatives. Two weeks into our trip I became sick and still don’t feel 100%, and I am sure poor diet is the cause. Anyone on a gluten free/paleo/low carb diet here would starve. Perhaps there are better options in the fancier restaurants but not on our backpackers budget.

I thought Brazil and Peru were extreme with their bakeries and ice cream on every corner but Ecuador takes the cake (no pun intended). Toffee shops line the streets, each one identical to the next, and the candy makers stand in the doorway with giant ropes of melcocha, handing out pieces as you walk by. There’s also carts selling this stuff, along with pure sugar cane, at every bus stop and terminal. It’s a national obsession.

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Of course we had to see what all the fuss was about, so we bought a bag of assorted sweets to sample. After chipping my tooth on one, we left them behind. I’d rather save my sugar intake for ice cream!

On our last night in Baños we paid a visit to the hot springs, which consisted of several pools ranging from freezing cold to burning hot, packed with locals of all ages. The hot and cold shock therapy was the perfect way to reset and reenergize our bodies for the jungle days ahead.

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Our hostel was home to a host of stray animals—protective dogs who would guide us into town when we left to make sure we were safe, and sweet cuddly cats who’d curl up onto your lap and purr for hours. I’m missing Susie terribly these days—it’s hard to deal with spending the rest of this year without her.

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When in Baños, a ride on the “swing at the end of the world” is an absolute must. I remember coming across photos of this treehouse on Pinterest years ago, and didn’t realize where it was until recently.

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It had rained all morning so we were lucky to have a small crowd when we arrived. There was plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the view of the volcano.

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We could have easily stayed in Baños longer—it’s one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited and has everything we love in a town—safe, affordable, plenty of activities, good nightlife but also quiet and friendly locals. If you’re in Ecuador, you can’t miss it.

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At 2:30 on Sunday afternoon, we walked to the bus station to catch a ride on another public bus back to Quito. The 3 hour journey turned into 5, and after a long taxi back into town, we finally stepped foot into the hostel lobby at 9pm. Starving and tired, we realized there were no food options nearby open on a Sunday night, and had to resort to another healthy dinner from the mini-mart: fried sugary empanadas, bananas and chips.

We waited in the lobby until another bus picked us up at 11pm, and after a wild and bumpy overnight ride with intermittent sleep, we found ourselves in a parking lot at 5:30am in the town of Lago Agrio, one of the gateways to the Amazon.

Day 45-48: Cuyabeno, Amazon rainforest

The owner of a restaurant called us upstairs, where we napped in hammocks and ate croissants until a van arrived.

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The Andes mountains had given way to flat land covered in tropical greenery, and we became more excited by the minute as we approached our destination.

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After a few hours we pulled up to a river bed lined with motorized canoes and met a man named Jorge who would be our guide for the next four days.

The canoe took us through a narrow river surrounded by a large variety of trees and plants, and we stopped frequently to spot monkeys, snakes, birds and reptiles.

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After another two hours, we finally pulled up to our lodge—24 hours after we began our initial travel from Baños.

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The next four days make up the most memorable of this trip so far. Being in the Amazon, with nothing but jungle and wildlife surrounding you for miles, completely disconnected from the rest of the world is unlike anything else. I’ve been to jungles in Costa Rica and Southeast Asia but it’s different when you’re sharing it with the person you love.

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On our first night we were broken into the jungle with a nocturnal walk—a hike through the forest in the darkness to hunt for poisonous spiders and snakes. It’s not for the faint of heart.

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Drenched in bug spray with our rubber boots and flashlights, we walked single file through the bushes, calling out when we spotted a web or pair of glowing eyes. The spiders were massive, with webs as big as my body.

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At one point we turned off all the lights and stood silently as Jorge communicated with a monkey in the tree. It was more exciting than scary—that is until Jorge came across tracks in the mud, stopped to analyze them, nervously told us all to wait there as he took off and left us alone for several minutes. I was thinking a big animal was after us but it turns out he was just lost. Still not ideal being lost in the Amazon, but fortunately we made it back to the lodge in one piece.

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The lodge is on a floating forest only accessible by boat, so most of our days and evenings were spent on the water. We did a lot of monkey spotting and bird watching, trekking through the swamp, and night excursions.

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On our last day we visited a local community, meeting up with a woman and her son to help make bread from scratch using manihot roots we pulled from a nearby crop. A shaman came to visit, performing a traditional blessing and taking us to see an ayahuasca vine (look that stuff up if you’ve never heard of it… fascinating drug).

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My favorite animal sighting was a wild baby pig whose mother had died, and it was adopted by a family in the village. You could hear the squeals of this tiny thing from a mile away, and it would follow the little boy around like a puppy.

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Jorge took us on the boat one night after fishing for piranhas, and we rode through the trees, coming inches from snakes as they twisted around branches above our heads. We spotted glowing red eyes from a Caiman alligator and returned to the lodge where frogs had snuck into some of the bedrooms.

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Every evening we’d go to the lagoon to swim and watch the sunset. The sun’s intensity is extreme at the equator, so a dip in the water to cool off at the end of the day was always a highlight.

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The sunsets here are gorgeous, layered with storm clouds and always accompanied by lightning in the distance.

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At night the jungle comes alive with the buzz of cicadas and echoes of birds and monkeys. Without any light pollution, you can see every constellation in the Milky Way.

I’ll never forget those nights—gliding over calm waters through warm winds, gazing up into the sky at twinkling red planets… lying in bed under a mosquito net, listening to the rain and growls of howler monkeys… realizing where we are, and that these moments will never happen again—soon we’ll be married, and life will be different.

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We often pause to reflect on this, daydreaming about our future but equally realizing the importance of soaking up the days of our engagement before they pass.

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By the time this is published, we’ll be in Colombia, spending our last few weeks in South America before heading home for my sisters’ wedding and then Europe.

Eight days in Ecuador was barely enough to scratch the surface of this beautiful country, and we will return one day without a doubt.

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Stay tuned for the Ecuador video coming very soon, and join me on Instagram as I post live daily updates from our adventure. Sending love from Colombia!

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17 Days in Peru: The Video

From the mountains to the desert to the coast, Peru exceeded our expectations and provided months worth of memories in the short 17 days we were there.

It feels like ages ago that we first touched down in Cusco—and despite the illnesses, mysterious rashes and lack of sleep, we never took our time here for granted and made the most of every day.

Here is our experience condensed into a 3.5 minute movie (click to watch):

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We hope you enjoy watching as much as we enjoyed creating this… thank you as always for joining us on our adventures! Tomorrow we’ll be on a canoe in the Amazon, off the grid for the next four days as we explore the Ecuadorian rainforest.

As always, you can follow in real time on my instagram stories for more frequent updates. More from Ecuador, coming soon!

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From Cusco to Lima, Peru

Day 27: Puno, Peru

At 10pm on our last day in Cusco we boarded a bus headed for the town of Puno, a lake town at the far southeast end of Peru.

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After seven hours of tossing and turning, the driver turned the lights on at 5am and we were instructed to disembark and wait for a van to take us to our hostel. We had signed up for a hop on hop off bus tour which would loop around the southern half of Peru and end at Lima. For $190 each, we figured it’d be the best way to see the highlights, eliminate the confusion and delays of public transport and meet fellow travelers along the way.

After a week of high altitude and chilly weather in Cusco, I was looking forward to returning to a normal climate and wasn’t expecting the 39° air as I stepped off that bus. There’s also apparently no heaters in Puno, so we bundled up and waited in a lobby for hours for another van to take us to the dock.

Puno is the gateway to the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, which straddles Bolivia at over 12,000 feet above sea level.

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Here is where you’ll find the village of Uros, a community of man made floating islands (big enough to hold just a few huts) constructed from reeds, which are still inhabited by the indigenous people.

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Our boat landed on one of the islands where we met with one of the leaders of the community who paddled us around on his reed boat and explained his history and culture.

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From there we were transported to Taquile Island, where around 1500 people live and still practice traditions passed down by their ancestors.

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We climbed to the top of the mountain (even though it was higher than Cusco it felt much more manageable), past sheep-filled rocky pastures and two year olds selling bracelets, and ended the tour feasting on trout overlooking the water.

That evening in Puno was quiet, as I was still trying to recover from the flu and we had several more hours to kill before the bus without a room to retreat to. We found shelter in a restaurant with two girls from Malta, chugging tea to stay warm while killing time. I was counting down the hours until I had access to a hot shower and a bed, but still had one more night on the bus.

Day 31-32: Arequipa, Peru

Our bus that night was much older and rattled the whole way, but fortunately due to pure exhaustion I was finally able to get some sleep. We arrived in our next destination of Arequipa before dawn and happily paid the extra $10 to check in early and crawl into a real bed.

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After a relaxing morning, we joined the Maltese girls for a walking tour of the city and were relieved to be at a lower elevation with warmer weather.

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Arequipa sits at the base of the Andes below a range of volcanic mountains, which makes for a pretty stunning backdrop.

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The buildings were constructed from volcanic rock in the 16th century (though most have been repaired/rebuilt due to numerous earthquakes).

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We kept to the central areas but the city felt very safe and walkable, much like Cusco and everywhere else we’ve been in Peru. The best part of the walking tour? Meeting this little one:

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My love for llamas has been solidified.

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After our tour, our guide pointed us to a local restaurant outside of the touristy areas, in which we were served huge portions of fish soup and delicious relleno for a bargain. Every region in Peru seems to have a different food specialty, although rice and French fries on the side are standard everywhere. And much like Brazil, they can’t get enough sugar and bread.

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We found the local market and it was filled with rows of every kind of fruit imaginable, among a random assortment of meats and potatoes (Peru is home to over 2,000 types of potatoes!)

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Always up for surprises, we picked two random fruit juices off the menu—one of which had the texture of chalk and tasted like roasted marshmallow (Lucas disagrees).

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The following day we took a bus around the countryside which was my personal favorite part. There’s so much more to Arequipa than just the downtown central district.

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After two days in the city, it was time to move on to our next destination.

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Day 33-35: Nazca & Huacachina, Peru

We woke up at 5am, ready for a full day of bus travel. Shortly after leaving the city limits, the landscape began to turn into sand, and soon enough we were surrounded by mountains of dunes in every direction.

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Suddenly the desert met the ocean and we were reunited with the Pacific for the first time in over a month. The ride up the coast was beautiful and familiar, like we were headed up highway 1 in central California (but more deserted).

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We stopped at a small fishing town along the way for ceviche, then made it to a town called Nazca before sunset.

There, on the side of an open highway with nothing around for miles, we climbed an old metal viewing tour and peered out over the desert landscape in search of large drawings in the sand drawn by the ancient Nazca people dating back to as far as 500 BCE. From the viewing tower we could only see a couple drawings as the largest ones cover up to 1,200 ft.

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Thirty minutes later we were en route to our next destination—the desert oasis of Huacachina.

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I’d come across this place in my South America research and immediately added it to our list of places to go.

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Apart from a photo of a lake and sand buggy, I had no idea what to expect (which is my favorite way to travel) so we chose a hostel at the last minute and prepared for a fun night.

At some point during the drive to sea level, my congestion finally cleared and my hearing was fully restored (after 3 weeks!) so I was ready to celebrate. We joined a big barbecue then headed to a bar/club with our bus tour guide, drinking pisco and dancing salsa for hours. The club was also full of dogs (stray/resident animals are typical at nearly every establishment here), one of which was very pregnant and loved being at the center of the dance floor.

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After our fill of Latin music, we all climbed to the top of a sand dune carrying palm leaves and branches up to a bonfire, which we gathered around for into the early hours of the morning. Sidenote: scaling sand dunes is much more difficult than you’d think—one small hill took more effort than the entirely of Machu Picchu.

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The next day we ventured into the nearby town of Ica, where we toured a local vineyard and tasted pisco before grabbing tuk tuks (although here they just call them motor taxis) to a local market for ceviche with our guide—he knew all the best local spots.

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When we returned, it was time for the fine buggy & sandboarding tour. This is the main draw of Huacachina and we’d been looking forward to it for days.

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We were strapped into a buggy with 8 other people and told we’d been given the craziest driver.

For the next two hours we were holding on for dear life as our buggy flew through the sand, getting sideways and catching air while coming inches from other buggies and people (GoPro video coming soon!)

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Along the way we stopped at the top of the peaks, grabbed a board and slid head first 100 feet down the face of the tallest and steepest dunes in South America.

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Right behind Machu Picchu, this was my second favorite experience in Peru. We didn’t want it to end—so much so that we extended our trip and stayed another night in Huacachina.

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That night we met a British couple and went to dinner with them to exchange GoPro footage, and we met up with them the next day to get some amazing drone shots (just wait for the next video!)

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It was the setting of this desert oasis that got me. Neither of us had any idea that a vast and breathtaking desert landscape made up so much of Peru—most people picture Machu Picchu and the highlands when they think of this country, but it’s much more diverse. And bonus, the desert makes a killer setup for photo & video shoots.

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After an amazing two days in Huacachina, I didn’t want to leave but we were anxious to continue our journey and get to Lima. With sand still clinging to our every crevice of our bodies, we caught the 6pm bus headed north—next stop: Paracas.

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Day 36-37: Paracas, Peru

Just a couple hours up the coast, Paracas is a small port town serving as the gateway to Paracas National Reserve and the Ballestas Islands, otherwise known as the poor man’s Galapagos.

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We arrived late in the evening and booked an early boat tour to the islands, as recommended by our bus company.

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The tour was a quick two hours, as we circled rocky islands full of birds, crabs, seals and even saw penguins!

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It was interesting to see but felt like it had ended almost as soon as it had begun. We barely had enough time to take photos, let alone take in our surroundings.

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Fortunately there was still a full day left in Paracas after returning, so we spoke to a handful of tour companies and ended up finding a guy who agreed to take us on a private ATV tour of the national reserve for 120 soles ($40) for 2 hours. Sold.

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Hands down, best thing to do in Paracas. We rode through the barren landscape that was once the ocean floor, finding ancient fossils and marveling at miles of scenery that felt somewhere between New Mexico and Mars.

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Along the way we stopped at a few viewpoints to catch a glimpse of the coastline…

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And dramatic red sand beaches…

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I could have spent all day there, but we had to catch the night bus to Lima that evening. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend exploring the reserve via ATV or sand buggy.

The town of Paracas itself is quite small and lackluster (it’s all for tourists) so we were happy to get back on the bus for Lima.

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Day 38-40: Lima, Peru

In the wee hours of the morning our bus finally arrived to Lima—the final stop on our bus route. We’d made it to the end!

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We had no plans upon arrival, booking our hostel at the last minute and hoping for the best. We knew to stay in the Miraflores or neighboring Barranco areas, as Lima has a reputation for being quite unsafe (even moreso than Rio).

During our final few days in Peru, we toured both the central district and Barranco (absolutely loved Barranco), explored the beaches and restaurants and ate enough ceviche to hold me over for months. I’m no ceviche connoisseur, but it all seems to be exactly the same everywhere in Peru. It always looks like this:

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Fish, lime juice and spices, raw purple onions and a sweet potato. Lima is known as the the ceviche capital of the world (you can’t go a block without someone advertising it) and I’ve never had so much raw fish in my life. Another dish everyone talks about is the lomo saltado (stir fry beef with peppers & onions, served with white rice and fries) but we tried it a few times and didn’t understand the hype.

My favorite Peruvian dish actually wasn’t discovered until reaching Lima (apparently it’s only available in Lima?)—it’s the tacu tacu which is pan fried rice and beans, topped with a meat or fish in a sauce. It is the closest thing they have to Mexican food and what I wouldn’t give for a good street taco or enchilada these days…

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Anyway, we enjoyed being back in a big city with a variety of cuisines and modern amenities before heading off to the jungle. By the time this post is published we’ll be on a plane to Ecuador, where we’ll spend several days in the Amazon before traveling to Colombia to wrap up the South America leg of our travels.

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It seems like ages ago that we landed in Cusco—and feels as if we’re worlds away from Machu Picchu. One of the best parts of traveling is how it slows down time, giving you years worth of memories in a month and more years in your life. While there are many parts of home we miss, we wouldn’t trade these days for the world.

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Stay tuned for our Peru video, coming soon! In the meantime you can follow my stories on instagram for our daily adventures from Ecuador. Until then…

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